Interfaith dialogue is considered a prime means for people of religious faith to collectively counter misunderstandings among themselves, and fend off the worst impingements of secular society.
But a contrarian voice at a major multi-faith conference in Ottawa this week warned members of the nation’s diverse spiritual communities to turn at least equal attention to strengthening civil religion and avoid the dispiriting fate of our American neighbours.
“There is a Canadian civil religion, and it’s first premise is civility,” Howard Adelman told the Our Whole Society conference at St. Paul University. “But unless (faith communities) can forge a real partnership with secular society, there’s a real danger it will go downhill as it has elsewhere in the world.”
Civil religion is sociological coinage for the secular public rituals, symbols, days or places of shared reverence, and perceived national virtues that stand apart from institutional religious belief, yet exhibit the prime characteristics of faith and worship.
Adelman, an emeritus professor of philosophy at York University, contrasted the civility of Canadian civil religion with what he deemed the “incivility” that has taken hold of American social and political life.
He listed some binaries that result: compassion in Canada versus passion in the U.S., dignity and fairness here versus indignity and protectionism there, diversity north of the border rather than the polarization caused by “the fight for unity” of being and doing to the south.
Paradoxically, the weakening of institutional religion poses a significant threat to the flourishing of our civil religion of civility because it leads to the “false consciousness” that we are merely “nice” people.
“We paint ourselves as nice Canadians, but in the niceness we hide our own lack of faith,” he said.
Speaking on a panel exploring immigration and refugee settlement, Adeleman said the issue is a perfect example of how the diminishment of religious institutions weakens Canadian society generally and, by extension, threatens civil religion itself.
He compared Canada’s recent response to the Syrian refugee crisis with the mobilization to resettle ethnic Chinese being persecuted in Vietnam during the 1970s. Canadians are very proud of having welcomed 25,000 new arrivals from Syria in the past 15 months or so. But 40 years ago, he pointed out, Canada gladly accepted many times more people fleeing the horrors in Indochina.
Why the difference? In large measure, Adelman said, because of the political weight religious groups – he gave high marks to savvy Christian Reformed and Mennonite leaders who worked effectively at both political and bureaucratic levels – were able to bring decades ago. By that performance marker, our much-lauded generosity to Syrian refugees seems to border on niggardly, and illuminates just how dangerously tenuous the faith-political nexus has become.
“We are much weaker now because faith communities are so much weaker. The faith communities no longer have the political force to raise the numbers (of refugees). That weakens the partnership with secular society, which doesn’t have the commitment to sustain (refugee settlement) for the long term.”
Key to this, Adelman said, is the historical memory embedded in religious traditions that have undergone persecution themselves, and therefore respond at a foundational level to the witness of others suffering it. People of religious faith don’t answer the refugee’s call to be nice, or good, or even socially effective. They heed it because it is inseparable from faith itself.
Here is where the collapse of religious communities, leading to a breach with political society, takes the ground out from under our civil religion of civility, Adelman said. He cited a group of high rise apartment towers in north west Toronto that are home primarily to first generation Canadians. Those tower dwellers, he said, are effectively condemned to lives bounded entirely by their immediate kinship groups. As a result, they manifest the “Paris suburb” behaviors of severe insularity and, ultimately, deep intolerance.
Absent the prospect of rich interplay between robust religious institutions and the secular world, obviously including the political sphere, how will they find their way to Canadian civil religion, to Canada’s primacy of emphasis on civility, compassion, and dignified diversity?
“How do we get all those people involved in embracing our civil religion?” Adelman asked.
The question merits a whole Our Whole Society conference of its own. But two answers in the negative immediately suggest themselves. The first: not by smugly ignoring what’s happening to the south. The second: not by denigrating institutional religion and denying its gifts to shape Canada for the better.
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